Thursday, 15 October 2015

Translating silent film: 'Kid Speed' (1924)

OK, silent film translation time. I just came across two different language versions of Kid Speed (Semon, 1924), a comedy short featuring one Oliver N. Hardy. One version is in English; the other is in Italian, from an off-air recording from RAI television.

The English version can be found here:

The Italian version, entitled Ridolini e il suo bolide, is here


The original YT poster dates this broadcast to the 1970s:
La pellicola è una versione della Rai, probabilmente databile negli anni '70: ad un certo punto si può ascoltare una versione del brano "Il re del piffero", sigla della serie "Le simpatiche canaglie", ovvero i corti delle "Our Gangs" trasmessi dalla Rai nella seconda metà degli anni '70. Altra chicca è il cappello introduttivo del cortometraggio che viene presentato come comica americana presentata da Jean Gaborit e Jaques Durant [sic], due amanti del cinema famosi per le ricostruzioni e le riscoperte di pellicole storiche; loro è infatti la ricostruzione della versione originale del 1939 de "La regola del gioco" di Jean Renoir.
[The film is a RAI version, probably dating from the 70s; at a certain point you can hear a version of the song 'Il re del piffero', the theme song of the series 'Le simpatiche canaglie', which were the Our Gang shorts broadcast by RAI in the second half of the 1970s. Another nugget is the intro to the short which is presented as American funnies presented by Jean Gaborit and Jaques Durant [sic], two film lovers famous for reconstructing and rediscovering old films: it was they who reconstructed the original version of Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game from 1939.]

The English version runs slightly over eighteen minutes; the Italian clip less than fourteen, but it's typical of these broadcast versions to be quite cut about. What's interesting is to look at which bits have been maintained and which have been lost. The English-language version has a lot of verbal as well as visual humour. The scene is set in rhyme:

There are some quite marked shifts in register between the titles:

(I can't work out why the two different typefaces and layouts.)
Some of the titles introduce the characters and the actors who play them:

(The writer seems temporarily to have run out of rhymes here.)


(I am embarrassed to say that the penny took a few minutes to drop with 'Phil O'Delfya'.)

(btw any readers know what the 'million gate' is?)

The Italian credits don't introduce the characters like this, and the full cast list in the opening credits is missing too. Instead they give us an opening credit for Semon, and one for Hardy and a 'Patty Alexander':

This is a bit mystifying, since the only actress in the film is Dorothy Dwan, and on checking, she doesn't seem to have masqueraded at any point as Patty Alexander, though she did start out in life as Dorothy Illgenfritz. There is a Frank Alexander, but...? Mystery unresolved. (For more on mysteriously differing character names in Italian film versions, see old post 'Who is Fred?').

The Italian clip blithely ignores all the scene-setting and verbal dexterity of the original. It has many fewer titles - is, in fact, positively laconic:

[Ridolini, with his help, is fine-tuning the meteor/vehicle he will drive in the Grand Prix.] (I'm not sure who 'suo' refers to here.)

[The philanthropist who organised the race pays a visit with his daughter to the main contestants.]

[The day of the race.] Note that this title corresponds to the following title in English:

The Speed Kid (Semon) and Dan McGraw (Hardy) are rivals for the affections of Avery DuPoys' daughter Lou, played by Dorothy Dwan. Her father promises that whoever wins the race can date her:

Dan McGraw gets very excited about this, and tries to get his goons to sabotage his rival:

But in Italian, he only seems to be interested in the race:

[Get rid of that Ridolini! The Grand Prix will be mine!]

The clips raise lots of questions. Are these two versions in themselves complete, or have they lost other bits along the way? Are these Italian titles the earliest available titles, or were there at any point earlier, perhaps more fully translated titles? Can we in any sensible way consider these two films as original and translation?

It's clear that even if silent film *can* lay claim to being easy to translate because the titles in the target language can just be refilmed and substituted, it doesn't mean that silent film *is* translated in so straightforward a manner. The whole texture of the film has changed. Taking out the wordy English titles changes the nature of the comedy, rebalancing the film in favour of the slapstick. Paratextually, it's reframed as a nostalgic pleasure, rather than for a contemporary audience. And the Italian titles are poorer not just semantically, but aesthetically; the two typefaces used in the original (for reasons which aren't clear to me, since they don't seem to correspond to any distinction between, say, narrative and dialogue titles) are reduced to one very functional one. And that's of course without even considering all the other ways in which the film could have been recut, which is beyond the scope of this little post.

The whole question of what actually constitutes 'part of the film' for the purposes of translation is at issue. But more on the (para)textual status of intertitles in a future post.

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